This is the second portion of our long Easter trip throughout Italy and France. Click here to read the first part of the trip where we were in Cinque Terre. This post will cover our 4 days in the French Riviera, and then Doug’s post (coming next) will cover our last part of the trip in the Provence region of France.
In preparation for this much time spent in France, Doug and I actually tried to learn some French. We decided that our Lenten resolution would not be to give something up, but instead to learn French. The goal was to do 30 minutes of French every day using Rosetta Stone. We probably ended up doing about 30 minutes only 4 or 5 days of the week, but we still tried to learn some French and I do think it helped us get around easier. We are headed back to France in June for the French Open (Roland Garros), so perhaps we will continue with our French lessons.
Anyway, during our four days in the French Riviera we had our home base as Nice, and then took day trips from there to explore the other surrounding towns. We traveled to the bigger cities of Monaco, Antibes, and Cannes, and we also explored the smaller villages of Eze-le-Village, Villefranche-sur-Mer, and Cap Ferrat.
Sunday, March 31st: Travel from Cinque Terre to Nice in the French Riviera
We left Cinque Terre taking the train and actually had to make 3 changes before we finally made it to our destination of Nice. We spent the first half of the day on the train, which was disappointing because it was actually a sunny day. Oh well, I guess that made for pretty views, right?
The first train leg was from Vernazza to Monterossa, both of which are Cinque Terre towns. So that was a short 5 minute train ride. The next journey was from Monterossa to Genoa, where we had to switch trains and had about a 40 minute layover. Next, Genoa to Ventimiglia, which is on the Italy/French border. That was the longest part of the ride, probably about 3 hours. We also didn’t know it, but we had boarded a fast train and our ticket was apparently only for a slow train. I still have no idea how to tell the difference because we bought the ticket on the machine, it gave us a departure time, and we went to the platform corresponding to that departure time… but in any case we got fined on the train! I think we had to pay the difference of what the “fast train” ticket would have cost, so we had to give the ticket collector €30 in cash. Pretty sure he just pocketed that money…
Anyway, after reaching Ventimiglia, we hopped on the next train to Nice and arrived about an hour later. We checked into our hotel, which was centrally located between the train station and the waterfront, and headed out to explore Nice on the sunny day.
We mainly just walked around town (aka Rick Steves’ walking tour) and enjoyed the sunshine. After two washed out days in Cinque Terre, it was a nice change. I think we both even got a little sunburnt that day. It must have been raining the two previous days in Nice as well because it seemed like the entire town was out enjoying the sunshine. We walked down the seafront road that stretches along the beach called the Promenade des Anglais. That basically means English walkway because it was built for all the English aristocrats who came to vacation in this area in the early 1800s. That was when the walkway was initially built, but it has been expanded since then. Thank goodness so that it can accommodate the masses of people!
There were tons of people out laying on the beach, which although looks gorgeous, was actually pebbly. We noticed throughout our trip that it was rare to find a sandy beach. Most of the beaches were rocky and pebbly, but that didn’t seem to stop people from laying out. We did a nice couple mile long walk along the promenade all the way to Castle Hill (Colline du Chateau) which overlooks the whole city of Nice from a nice vantage point. There isn’t actually a castle on the hill, but there was a waterfall, a nice park, and of course gorgeous views of Nice and the beach.
After our big hike up the hill, we had worked up some nice appetites and were hungry for a big dinner. As this was actually Easter Sunday, a lot of places were closed, but of course the touristy places were open. We opted for a tourist spot that was advertising all-you-can-eat mussels for €15. Good dinner, but I definitely had my fill of mussels. I didn’t even think about getting mussels for the rest of the trip, and I can’t imagine a point in the future where I will be craving them again.
After dinner, we got the mandatory gelato dessert, walked a bit around Nice some more, and then called it a night.
Monday, April 1st: Explore Monaco (Monte Carlo) and Eze-le-Village
On Monday, we decided to go tour Monaco and pair it with Eze-le-Village, a cute little hill town. I’m just realizing now that going to gamble on April Fool’s day was probably not the best choice, and that might explain why we only lost money, but hey, at least we have the experience.
We took the bus instead of the train over to Monaco because it goes on this crazy bendy road with tons of views that we wanted to see. Throughout the French Riviera, a one-way bus ticket for up to 70 minutes only cost €1. So that means Doug and I could make it all the way to Monaco (about 45 minutes on the bus) for only €2, which would probably cost something like €10 on the train. The downside is that the bus can take longer, and apparently it is crazy crowded. It was standing room only on this bus.
We got very lucky and got seats, also on the right side of the bus which was best for all the views that we were going to see. Even though we were facing backwards, it was still a cool ride with gorgeous scenery.
We arrived in Monaco and you could immediately feel the wealth of this tiny country. The nice squares, the gorgeous buildings, the harbor filled with huge yachts, and of course THE CARS all added to this sense of luxury. Monaco is its own country even though it is tiny! Only 0.75 square miles! According to Wikipedia, it is the second smallest country in the world, only smaller than the Vatican City. So now we’ve been to the two smallest countries in the world!
We toured around Monaco just on foot, which was fine since it was so small! There was a nice produce market in the square when we first arrived and I thought it was very bright and colorful.
We walked up the big hill to what is referred to as Monaco-Ville (separate section than the resort and casino area of Monte Carlo) and saw the Prince’s Palace (aka the Pink Palace), the changing of the guards, and the Cathedral of Monaco.
The walk up provided some nice views and funny signs. I thought the sign meant that tourists couldn’t walk around in their underwear, but apparently it was referring to swimsuits. Gotta love the European-style swimsuit.
The Pink Palace was pretty impressive from the outside, and the views from the hilltop were also really nice. You can tour the palace, but we opted not to as we had plenty to see that day.
The changing of the guards was going to happen in about 45 minutes, so we decided to go tour the Cathedral of Monaco and then come back for the changing of the guards. Notice in the above picture how few people there are because then you can compare to the throngs of people that were there when we got back.
The Cathedral was quite nice; it was decorated with all the flowers from Easter and it was free! We toured around it for a bit, and saw where Princess Grace Kelly was buried (grave in the bottom left picture above). She was the American actress who married Prince Rainier of Monaco and died in a car accident in the hills of the French Riviera.
It was time to head back for the changing of the guards, and the crowds had magically formed over the past 30 minutes. Because of these huge crowds, I actually didn’t get a very good view of the changing of the guards ceremony. I was trying to watch what happened by looking at the camera screens of the people in front of me who were holding up their cameras. Here are a few of the pictures we got. If we had gotten a better view, it might have been worth seeing, but I didn’t really think it was all that impressive. Look at the bottom right picture in the collage below for an idea of what my view looked like. Maybe we should have grabbed a spot up front and just stayed there for the previous 45 minutes.
After the changing of the guards, it was time for lunch. We had packed a picnic from supplies that we picked up at a local store. Shopping at the local stores was definitely where our French speaking came in handy, and also where we realized that we still needed to learn more. Still, on most days we went to local shops and got bread, meat, and cheese in order to have a picnic lunch. We ate our lunch in a nice park with some crazy cacti, pretty flowers, and good views of Monaco.
Next, we walked over to the Monte Carlo area which is where you find the famous casino, nice yachts, and fancy cars. It was a pleasant walk with some good views along the way.
We saw so many amazing cars, and I was trying to take pictures of them all, but some were just too fast and sped right by! It was fun to just sit right outside the Monte Carlo casino and watch the fancy cars go by. We saw Ferraris, Mercerdes, Bentleys, etc. We even saw some Rolls-Royces!
And yes, we did do some gambling. The Monte Carlo casino doesn’t open until 2pm, and it was about 1:30pm, so we went into the next door “American casino.” Apparently this is the more low-class casino that anybody can get into, doesn’t have a cover charge, and has American-style games. I thought American-style would mean they had craps (our favorite game to play), but they literally only had slot machines and e-table games. I’m not a fan of these games because I know they have literally programmed the code for me to lose, so we just played there for a little bit until the fancy Monte Carlo casino opened. And yes, I realize that card and dice games also have the odds against me so that the house will win money, but at least I know it’s not programmed in the code!
Once the Monte Carlo casino opened, we headed over there to check it out. You can get into the first room without having to pay any cover, but unfortunately the craps table was in the next level room, where you have to pay €20 to get in. We didn’t want to do that, so we settled for some roulette and that was it. The atmosphere was actually not that fun. We’ve been to Vegas before, so I normally think of a casino as a place where the employees are really friendly because they want you to stay there and lose your money, but enjoy it while you do. However, here I felt like all the people at Monte Carlo were just judging me and Doug and at any moment they might ask us to leave because we weren’t dressed properly or weren’t rich enough or something. Good thing we were there during the day because at night they have a strict dress code. So anyway, since the atmosphere wasn’t great, and we weren’t winning any money during the gambling, we left there pretty quickly. I’m still glad we went though. We picked up a couple of used official playing card decks as a cool and useful souvenir.
We decided to make our way to Eze-la-Village, which is a nearby cute village in the hills of the Riviera. There was supposed to be a bus that took us directly there, but after waiting for a little while and it not showing up, we realized that since it was Easter Monday, it was actually a holiday and this particular bus did not run on holidays.
However, we weren’t going to give up our plan to go to this village. We decided on an alternate route, which included riding on two different buses, with a 40 minute layover in between, but eventually we made it to Eze-le-Village, although much later than hoped.
By this time, the weather, which had been overcast all day, turned much worse. The temperature dropped quite a bit, it got incredibly windy, and it started to rain. Touring the cute little hill town was not enjoyable in these conditions. The whole point of the town is to walk through the narrow lanes, explore the cute shops and cafes, and enjoy the stunning views from the lookout points. However, the little narrow lanes were acting like wind tunnels, and the lookout points just provided great spots to get extra wet by the rain. Therefore, this town was not all that enjoyable.
We also had the plan to hike down from Eze-le-Village on a hill-side trail to the little town of Eze-Bord-de-Mer, where we could catch the train or bus back to Nice. However, with the weather quickly becoming worse, we decided to scrap the hike. Oh well, we had done enough walking for the day, and just caught the bus from there back to Nice.
Tuesday, April 2nd: Explore Villefranche-sur-Mer and Cap Ferrat (also more of Nice)
Tuesday was spent exploring some of the smaller Riviera towns of Villefranche-sur-Mer and Cap Ferrat. Cap Ferrat had two exquisite mansions that we toured, and a nice coastal walk.
Villefranche-sur-Mer was a nice Mediterranean town and we basically just walked around the small village. To me, it almost felt a little like some of the towns in the Cinque Terre. It had a nice harbor, a cool citadel, a cute chapel, and a blocked off street. We just sort of walked around the town before catching the bus on to Cap Ferrat.
The buildings were all painted in different pastel colors, which definitely reminded me of Italy! We didn’t go inside the citadel, but just walked around it.
This street, rue Obscura, is supposed to be a covered lane that was used as an air raid shelter during World War II. Too bad it was completely closed off for repairs.
Next we took the bus a short hop over to Cap Ferrat and got off at the Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild. This is basically a huge mansion with huge gardens that was built and owned by this really rich French banking heiress named Beatrice Rothschild. The site is now maintained by some French museum group so that the site can be preserved in its original state.
The villa blew me away!! I loved the pink exterior, the exquisite furnishings, and the beautiful gardens (it helped that it was a nice, sunny day!). There was an audio guide that went with the house, and I thought it was pretty good overall. Doug got bored by it because he said he didn’t care where the particular china or furniture came from. However, I thought that the house was amazing and sort of reminded me of the palace of Versaille in Paris. In fact, a lot of the furniture was once owned by Marie Antoinette herself!
Beatrice Rothschild was a really eccentric and wealthy women. She wanted her house with all the finest things, and loved surrounding herself with animals. Apparently she not only had the normal cats and dogs, she even had monkeys, ferrets, and mongooses. She even planned an elaborate wedding ceremony for two of her pet dogs in which she invited hundreds of people, with their respective pets, and had a bulldog in a top hat act as the officiant. She really sounds like quite the character! Although I feel like it is ridiculous to blow that much money on ridiculous things such as a pet wedding ceremony… I would have loved to have been there! Hahaha I can’t even imagine how funny it would be. One dog all dressed up in a wedding gown, the other in a little tux… all the dogs sitting in the crowd as the guests. Sounds like something that would be in a movie!
We also had tea in the lovely (and expensive!) tea room. I found my new favorite tea called the Quatre Fruits Rouges (Four Red Fruits). I picked some up at a grocery store later on to bring home as a souvenir. Delicious!
The outside gardens of the house were just as impressive, if not more impressive, than the house itself. There were 9 different gardens and we explored all of them! My favorites were the French garden, the Exotic Garden, and the Spanish garden. Unfortunately the rose garden had no roses in bloom, otherwise that would have definitely been my favorite. The exotic garden was full of cactus and other plants you would find in Texas, so therefore it made me feel at home! The French garden was the beautiful one that the balcony of the house overlooked, with a big reflection pool and fountains. The Spanish garden also featured a shallow pool, so I liked that one a lot.
There was actually some model getting her picture taken in the French garden, so I snapped a quick picture as well. We asked one of the employees who she was (thinking she might be someone famous) and he replied, “A very beautiful woman.” hahaha
The other gardens were the Provencal Garden, Japanese Garden, Stone Garden, Florentine Garden, and Sevres Garden.
Overall, I really enjoyed visiting the Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild and would totally go again! I think I just love touring big mansions and dreaming about living there.
Next, we walked down to the little town of St-Jean-Cap-Ferrat. We walked through the town and then did a nice circular walk around this miniature peninsula that jutted out into the sea. It was a really nice day and it took a little under an hour going at a leisurely pace and stopping to take pictures. Oh, we also ate our picnic lunch along the trail. There was a “Do not pass” sign blocking the entrance of the trail, but since it was a beautiful day and the trail seemed pretty safe, we disregarded it. There were plenty of others doing the same, including elderly people and families with small children, so we weren’t too worried.
You had to be careful on parts of the walk not to get wet because the waves were literally crashing onto the path! There was also a nice (and deserted) beach called Paloma beach that looked pleasant, but alas it was still pebbly, and not quite like the soft sand that I would prefer. I don’t think it was quite beach season yet which was why the beach was empty. I could imagine it getting pretty popular though during the summer.
Up next on the agenda was to visit another mansion called Villa Kerylos, which was built by a cousin of Beatrice Rothschild in the exact replica of a Greek villa from 200 BC. This was a short bus ride away, but since it was a nice day, we decided to continue our coastal trail and just walk there. It only took another 30-45 minutes.
This mansion is maintained by the same group that take care of the Ephrussi de Rothschild Villa, so we had bought the double-site ticket to save a little money. Similarly, there was an audio guide to go with this villa as well. However, I found this one less interesting. It was more about Greek gods than about the villa, and I wasn’t too intrigued. Each room seemed to have been dedicated to a different god, and the audioguide just went on and on about that particular diety. It was an impressive mansion, but I definitely liked the Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild more. Some of the things I found interesting were the dining room, the formal sitting room, the tile labyrinth, the central atrium, and the rainflow shower. Since the ancient Greeks would actually dine in the lounging position, the owner of the mansion wanted to stay true to form and put in the same type of dining-lounge chairs. I can’t imagine trying to dine in that sort of lounge position! The sitting room looked surprisingly uncomfortable, and I took a picture of the labyrinth so that I could try to solve it later on (can you find your way through?). The atrium was pretty cool because it was actually open to the sky, and the shower had an option to use rainwater as one of the many taps.
One neat fact: the Villa Kerylos was right next door to the mansion of Eiffel. Yes, the same Eiffel that built the tower in Paris. Unfortunately, his place is not open to the public.
That was the end of our touring that day. We returned to Nice and did a nice walking tour of the Old Town before calling it a day.
Wednesday, April 3rd: Antibes and Cannes
The game plan for this day was to take the train over to Cannes (about 45 minutes on the train versus an hour and a half on the bus), tour Cannes, then take the bus back to Nice, stopping in Antibes along the way. However, this is not how it worked out.
Our train to Cannes came to a complete stop and we waited there for about 10 minutes. They announced over the loud speaker that there was a technical problem with the train and they could not give any sort of estimate on how long we would be stopped. It could be awhile. Doug and I waited for another 5 minutes while we debated what to do. We figured out where we were, and we weren’t too far away from Antibes if we could catch a bus there. After some broken French talking, we figured out where the bus stop was located and headed that way, abandoning our train. Luckily the bus worked out and we got to Antibes about 30 minutes later; however, on the bus route we passed the train station and we saw that our train had left! We could have made it to Cannes after all.
Oh well, on to Antibes. It’s a fairly large city on the French Riviera with nice beaches (with sand!) and a really cute old town. We did the required Rick Steves’ walking tour and I really liked Antibes. It felt smaller than Nice, but still had a nice character.
They had an amazing covered market, so it was actually a good thing we went to Antibes before Cannes because the market closes up at 1pm. We decided to get our picnic supplies here at the market, but when ordering the sliced meat, something got lost in translation (i.e. our French skills failed us) and we ended up with about a pound of ham, enough for sandwiches for the whole week, not one day. So we decided to scrap getting any other food, and eat just straight meat for the day. Very paleo of us, although I would have preferred a nice baguette sandwich with some fresh goat cheese. Oh well.
On our walking tour we saw the Church of the Immaculate Conception, but all the doors were locked so we couldn’t get inside. It was right next door to the Picasso Museum in the Chateau Grimaldi, but I couldn’t convince Doug to go in the Picasso museum since we already went to a Picasso museum when we were in Malaga.
Although it was sunny, it wasn’t quite warm enough to go swimming. Although there were people at the beach, it would have been too cold for me. So we decided to catch the bus to Cannes.
Cannes is famous for it’s film festival and for celebrities and rich people. Although it was beautiful and sunny, it had a different feeling to it than the other Mediterranean villages along the French Riviera. Instead of being relaxed, it felt sort of uptight and like everybody was judging everyone else. Especially as we walked down the strip next to the beach, everybody was just sitting there judging the people that walked by. We decided to join them and had our meat lunch on the strip, people- and dog-watching all those that walked by. I wish I had thought to take pictures of all the little dogs that we saw because they were more abundant than the amount of fancy cars we had seen in Monte Carlo. I could have made a great designer dog collage.
There wasn’t too much to do or see in Cannes other than lay on the beach, people-watch, and window-shop. The stores were too fancy for my taste and I probably wouldn’t have even been allowed to step inside. The beach was incredibly nice, though, as it was actually sandy and stretched for a long way. If it had been a little bit warmer I would have liked to lay out for awhile.
On the way back to Nice that evening, we took the train and guess what!?! It stopped with technical problems again! However, since it was the end of the day and we didn’t have a full agenda, we decided to wait it out. I think we only had to wait 15 minutes after the moment where they told us they had no idea how long the wait would be. We made it back for our last night in Nice. We went out for a nice dinner to celebrate and had an amazing meal.
The next morning we were moving on from Nice with a rental car, but that will be recapped in Doug’s post to come. Overall, I definitely enjoyed the French Riviera and was glad we explored everything that we did. I liked going to Monte Carlo and Cannes, but I don’t think I would go back there unless I won the lottery and had my own yacht. I definitely enjoyed the small villages of Villefranche-sur-Mer and Cap Ferrat and would love to stay in one of those during the summer where you could enjoy a relaxed beach holiday. I think Nice was a great place for us to stay because it was easy to travel to all the Riviera towns by train or bus, and it was really nice to sort of have a home base and not be moving hotels every other day. We spent 4 nights in Nice, so I was even able to unpack my backpack! I would love to spend more time in the French Riviera, but I doubt that we will get to in our remaining 10 months in the UK. Too many other European destinations to explore first!